A long time ago, back in 1969, there were three cousins in Fort Payne, Alabama, who decided to form a band. The band kept practicing and perfecting their craft, eventually becoming a proficient bar band, traveling the southeastern US and landing an extended gig at the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, SC. For part of this period they used the name Wildcounty but eventually the band became known simply as ‘Alabama’. They not only wrote some of their own material, but came up with a unique sound that eventually attracted the interest of the Dallas-based MDJ label. The release in 1979 on MDJ of “My Home’s In Alabama” reached #17 and got the folks at RCA Records interested in them, so much so that they signed to RCA in March 1980, beginning an extended period of huge success.
At the time they arrived on the national scene in 1980, I was not a big fan of the band, but as time went by, I developed a strong respect for the band and a deeper appreciation of their music and their status as trailblazers in vocal group country music.
This is not to say that there had not been vocal groups in country music before. Far from it, as groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, The Willis Brothers, The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and, most notably, the Statler Brothers had been having considerable success for years before Alabama arrived.
The Willis Brothers and Sons of the Pioneers came out of the western (or western movies) tradition and really are separate and distinct from mainstream country music. The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers came out of the gospel music traditions, and even when performing mainstream country music they frequently still sounded like gospel groups. In the case of the Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers, when commercial country success abandoned them, they turned back to recording more gospel music.
Alabama was unique. They did not arise out of the western or gospel traditions but were a bar band that played in front of noisy barroom audiences, wrote their own material, covered the likes of Merle Haggard, and developed a synthesis of soft rock and country music that brought a new audience to country music. That new audience was a younger audience that had grown up on rock music but perhaps felt that rock had become too weird or perhaps simply had grown up with both rock music and country music and appreciated the synthesis that Alabama had developed.
Unlike most rock music of the time, Alabama’s music was both melodious and harmonious. Unlike most country music of the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama’s music was good dance music in a way that the music of Jimmy Dickens, Roy Drusky and Jim Reeves never could be. Plus Alabama had three really good vocalists, even if RCA insisted that Randy Owen be the lead vocalist on most tracks.
In addition to bringing a younger audience to country music, they were a huge influence on the genre as over the next decade, more and more vocal bands entered the scene, cautiously at first with Atlanta coming on the scene in early 1983, followed by more significant bands such as Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, Sawyer Brown and many others.
Alabama would have an uninterrupted run of success from 1980 thru 1999, after which time the top ten hits ceased. Along the way they would enjoy thirty-three #1 singles with six other singles reaching #2, six more reaching #3 and two more getting stranded at #4. Many of their singles reached #1 in Canada including a few late 1990s singles that did not reach #1 in the US (eh?).
Alabama was lead singer Randy Owen (b. 1949) and his cousins, Teddy Gentry (b. 1952) and Jeff Cook (b. 1949). For many years it was thought by most fans that drummer Mark Herndon was a member of the group, but years after the group retired, it was revealed that he was but a paid employee of the group.
Some of my older comrades may disagree, but when I listened to Alabama’s music, I always felt that I was listening to country music, if a somewhat different form of the genre. There are many album tracks which have a far more traditional sound than some of the singles. There are fiddles and steel guitars on many tracks and while the three members of Alabama were good songwriters, they did not hesitate to record good outside material.
Join us as we look back at the career of Alabama.